Distinctly Different

Recently, my wife and I attended a music showcase. One of the bands featured a very good local guitarist, one that I’ve known of for over 30 years. He’s always played well, and he’s well respected.

During the course of the show, he played several guitar solos, all of them top notch, and kept the rhythm going with style the rest of the time. He was using a Fender® Stratocaster®, which looked to me to be either a 57 re-issue or an Eric Johnson signature model, and a Bugera amplifier, with a well-stocked pedal board in between. This brings me to my first point.

Eric Johnson has a signature tone. If you’ve heard him play, it usually doesn’t take long to discern that, ‘that’s Eric Johnson playing.’ Fender recently introduced a new Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline model. While talking about this guitar, Mr. Johnson recalled some advice that B.B. King gave him years ago:

“You know, you can do this; you can do that. There’s all these things you can do, but find the one thing you do that’s unique, that nobody else can do, and just go with it!”

B.B. King had an instantly recognizable style. So does Eric Johnson. So do many others, from Carlos Santana to Willie Nelson to Roy Buchanan.

While listening to this great local guitarist play his solos, which were all on point and very good, I couldn’t help but notice his tone. To me, it sounded very, well, generic. It sounded like a Strat played through a pedal board. Nothing distinguishable about it, even though it was musically very good and well placed.

During a break in the show, my wife, who has a very discerning ear for music, had asked me who the guitarist was, and commented that he was really good. She’s very honest about her musical thoughts. If my tone or playing or singing is not very good, she will tell me. She’ll also honestly tell me her thoughts about anyone we listen to. I value her opinion; it’s an opinion forged by years of musical training.

As we were driving home after the show, I asked my wife what she thought about his tone. I asked her cold, so as not to prejudice her response. She replied that his tone, “wasn’t very good. It sounded cheap.” Interesting, especially considering that he was a very good guitarist playing what is considered to be good equipment.

That One Thing

Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received from anyone came from Mark Daven of the Guitar Radio Show. During an interview with him, after he had played two guitars through two different Texas Tone™ amplifiers, he stated:

“Many times I’ll play amps and you can’t tell one from the other. These are very distinctly different sounding amps. They made me play differently. I started approaching the instrument in a different way as I played each one.”

Mark Daven, Guitar Radio Show

When speaking about my signature amp, the Texas Tone 12, he stated that it has a “a pulsating tremolo. Different than anything I’ve heard before.”  He’s heard lots.

Don’t be generic. Don’t settle for a ‘me, too’ sound. Take advice from two masters, B.B. King and Eric Johnson. Find that thing you do that’s unique, that nobody else can do, and just go with it.

For me, it’s hand made tube amps, featuring the unique Hypnotic Slam Effect of the  Texas Tone 12 tremolo.

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Low Noise

I’m often asked how it is that my Texas Tone amps have so little hum and hiss compared to many other tube amps, and yet have such sweet tone. It’s by design.

So many tube amps today are descended from amps in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Many builders today make tube amps that are either clones or replicas of those amps. Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are not clones or replicas. They are new designs that are inspired by those iconic amps of the past. In those rare cases where we make a traditional amp design, it’s updated for low noise and safe operation.

Why not clones or replicas?

Safety

In some cases, the choice is clear – safety. Guitar amplifiers of the past had two-pronged non-polarized AC plugs. Turning the plug upside down reversed the polarity, which was interesting because there was no way to know which end was up. The danger of this is that the so-called “ground” side of the amp chassis could become “hot” and vice-versa. Tube amp builders made compromises and concessions to this. Two of these were the Ground switch and what became known as the “Death Cap.”

The Ground switch reversed the polarity of the plug (equivalent to turning the plug over, when you didn’t want to turn off your tube amp). I recall that the trick was to get all the amps on stage to the same polarity.  How did we do that?  Hold your guitar strings and tap a microphone. If you got shocked, you needed to flip your Ground switch or turn the AC plug over.  Ouch!

The Death Cap was a capacitor wired to one side of the AC power, or to the Ground polarity switch. It was intended to get rid of hum if your polarity was reversed. The reason it’s called a Death Cap is that if the capacitor fails, then your amp chassis, and by extension your electric guitar, could become hot with 120 Volts AC, a most unpleasant situation. Today, all amplifiers are built with a three-prong AC plug and a power ground, or at least they should be.

Noise

The noise floor of many vintage amps (new ones, too) is quite high. Many guitarists just get used to the noise and hum. I know one who doesn’t like tube amps because they hum and hiss.  I told him, “mine don’t.”  Some guitarists buy noise gates or noise filters or line filters to help reduce unwanted noise and hum. This noise is due to two things – component selection and wire lead dress. A little background may help.

Grounding

Many amps are built with poor grounding techniques, with multiple ground points throughout. This is a recipe for noise, as multiple ground points cause ground loops, a main contributor to noise. Texas Tone amps are built with solid electrical engineering ground scheme to eliminate ground loops and ensure low noise operation.  Well-respected electrical engineer and amp builder Randall Aiken has a nine-point plan for proper grounding.  As he states, “Grounding isn’t rocket science.”  Makes me wonder why some amp builders don’t follow basic grounding rules.

Lead Dress

In the mid-1960s Leo Fender sold his company to a large conglomerate. They immediately instituted cost-savings, partially due backorders of items sold but not yet produced. The Fender General Manager, Forrest White, had implemented a quality bonus program to ensure high quality work, but this was one of the first things scrapped to increase production numbers. Due to the rush to push product out the door, and without the quality incentives, amplifiers were built without proper attention to wire lead routing, called “lead dress”. Poor lead dress can lead to hum, hiss, oscillations, squealing, and generally negative impacts. Rather than fix this, the company changed their circuits to add anti-oscillation components, and changed component types and values to save money. The end results was that guitarists began to seek out the older amps that sounded better.

Components, Wire, and Lead Dress

Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are built exclusively with aerospace grade military specification wire. It’s flexible and yet holds its shape, even with right-angle bends, is conservatively rated at 150C (300F) and 600 working volts. I’ve seen some tube amps use 105C or even 85C wire rated as low as 300V. Since most tube amps produce between 300 and 500 Volts DC, using 300V wire is asking for trouble.

I make sure that the wiring inside Texas Tone amps does not induce noise, by ensuring that high voltage wires are kept away from signal wires.  Any time wire paths cross, they do so at right angles and sufficient air space.  Many sensitive signal wires are shielded.  There are lots of current spike and noise in transformer center-tap wires and choke wires.  These are kept away from sensitive preamp nodes.  I’ve seen some amp builders, in the name of neatness, bundle wires together with tie wraps – a sure recipe for noise.

Amps of the 1950s used carbon composition resistors. Why? Because that’s what was available and cheap, not because of some “sound mojo”. Allegedly, and subjectively, carbon comp resistors are said to be somehow warmer sounding.  Huh?  Many of these resistors aren’t even in the signal path!  Carbon comp resistors have notoriously loose tolerances, poor drift and noise characteristics, and are responsible for most of the crackling and frying sounds heard in most old tube amps.  I’ve also tested 220k carbon comp resistors that read anywhere from 185k to 240k!  Not good when the circuit calls for two 220k resistors tied together, or using one as your supply voltage for a gain stage.  Rest assured, the gain and distortion characteristics of a preamp with a 190k versus a 240k are quite different.

Most of these carbon comp resistors are rated at 350 Volts, not a happy situation in tube amps that routinely see more that 400V!  The resistors used in Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers are known for their stability, high temperature and voltage rating, and extreme low noise, and they don’t drift like carbon comp resistors. Here’s a comparison:

Type Tolerance Temperature Voltage Low-Noise
 Carbon Comp 1/2 Watt  ±10% 125C 350V NO
Texas Tone USA ±1% 175C 500V 0.10 μV/V
Texas Tone 1 Watt ±5% 155C 500V -10x Carbon Comp

Not only are these components low-noise, high voltage, and high temperature, they have tighter tolerances and they don’t drift, so they maintain your sound.  You want your sound to be consistent, night after night, gig after gig, session after session. You want a reliable musical instrument, not one that crackles, pops, hums, and is unreliable.

When you hear a Texas Tone amp, you’re not hearing hum and hiss, you’re hearing yourself at your best!  When you sound your best, you play your best.  Your tone matters.

Fight Marketing BS

I was looking at boutique tube amp websites, since I’m in that business.  I’m looking to see what other builders’ websites look like, what they’re selling, what their prices are, etc.   I’m often amazed by the amount of marketing lingo, and frankly, total BS that can be found on some of these sites.  I will list a few of these.

Period-Correct Transformers

This one is pure BS. Household voltages in the 1950s were perhaps 10 volts lower than they are in 2017.  Therefore, if you take an amplifier built in the 1950s and run it on today’s power, the test/idle voltages, bias numbers, etc., will all be off.  The high voltage may as much as 30 Volts DC above specification.

However, an amp built today is built with transformers designed for 120V operation, so that negates any need for “period-correct transformers.”  As a matter of fact, if a 1957 amplifier uses a 115/650VAC transformer, and a new amp uses a 125/650 volt transformer, guess what- they both put out 650VAC, it’s just that one does it with a 115V input, and another does it with a 125V input.

While it’s true that if you run are using an old amp from the ’50s today your voltages will be too high, a new amp is designed for today’s higher line voltages.  A “Period-correct transformer” only matters if you’re replacing a power transformer in an old amp.  To that end, some of the new replacement transformers have two primary taps.  One example used in my amps has a 115V primary and a 125V primary.  Bear in mind also, that although 120 VAC is the modern U.S. standard, actual measured voltage is plus or minus 5%.  I usually see 122 Volts in my shop.  When I test my amplifiers, I always use a variable AC transformer to test at 120VAC.

Tube vs. Solid-State Rectifiers

I read on one site about an amp’s tube rectifier having excellent sonics due to a lack of solid-state components.  That’s debatable enough, as many guitarists like the sound of their solid state amps, but then he goes on to say that solid-state rectifiers slam the tubes on power-up causing excess tube wear.  That is simply not true!

Tube-rectified amps generally behave differently than solid-state diode rectified amps.  In general, solid-state diode amps are “tighter” than tube-rectified amps, and tube-rectified amps generally exhibit a bit of voltage “sag” under high loads, leading toward a compressed sustain.  Again, in general.  Some people like solid-state rectified amps, and those amps have excellent sonics.  Amps such as a Twin Reverb® of Vibro-King® have solid-state rectifiers and excellent sonics.  My Texas Tone™ Ranger comes with a solid-state rectifier, and can also use a tube rectifier.

Solid-state rectifiers do not “slam the tubes on power-up.”  In fact, the type of rectifier has nothing at all to due with slamming the tubes on power up!  That particular symptom is a function of the Standby switch.  The Twin Reverb® and Vibro-King® use solid-state rectifiers and a Standby switch.  When a Standby switch is used on startup, waiting 15 seconds between turning on the power switch and switching the standby switch on, then there is no slamming the tubes on power-up, regardless of the type of rectifier.

The whole idea of slamming the tubes on power up is debatable anyway.  Books have been written about it.  The official tube manuals speak of things such as “cathode stripping” and the need for standby switches, but add a qualifier, “except for receiving tubes.”  Tubes used in guitar amplifiers are all receiving tubes.  Some tube rectifiers heat up gradually, and don’t even need a Standby switch.  I like to use a Standby switch, and I isolate them for trouble and noise-free operation.

Cathode-Biased Watts

Some boutique amp builders claim that their cathode-biased 6V6 tube amps produce 18-22 Watts with two 6V6 tubes in a Class AB push-pull configuration.  Um, no.  With 350V plate voltage you might get 13 or 14 watts.  If you’re running 420V B+ you might even be able to get to 16 watts.  By the way. the 1955 GE tube data lists 315 V DC maximum for their 6V6GT tube; a modern JJ 6V6S indicates a 500VDC maximum.  Either way, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get more than 16 Watts from any cathode-biased push-pull 6V6 amp, and that’s running way-above-spec (for anything but a JJ 6V6S) plate voltage (some people call the JJ 6v6S a cross between a 6V6 and 6L6).  I don’t know where they’re getting those 18-22 Watt numbers.  Instantaneous millisecond peaks at the speaker with 50% total harmonic distortion?  I don’t know.  I rate my amps in real, tested Watts.  My cathode-biased 6V6 push-pull amps will output around 14 Watts +/- 2W, depending upon the model.  No BS.

Surface-Mounted Components

One builder claimed a “surface mount capacitor” as the main power supply filtering device.  Huh?  Then he includes a photo and the model of the capacitor.  It’s not a surface-mount capacitor. It’s a multi-section can electrolytic capacitor, the same one used in hundreds of other amplifiers.

These are surface-mount capacitors, not used for power supply filtering in tube amps (they’re tiny, smaller than a dime):

surface-mount

This are multi-section can, of the type used in tube amps (they’re about the size of D cell batteries):

nice

Point-to-Point Wiring

Don’t get me started.  I wrote a whole blog on this.  I do not use “point-to-point’ wiring.  With point-to-point wiring, each component is connected to a tube pin or solder lug or jack.  There are no “boards” whatsoever.  Examples of this style of construction include most old tube hi-fi equipment, 70-era Sunns, and more recently BadCat and Carr.  I sturdily mount all passive components on turret boards or tag boards.  Wires are carefully routed to avoid noise and cross-talk, and I color-code all wiring for easy tracing.

True point-to-point wiring example:

point_to_point_thumb.jpg

Turret board wiring example:

LilDawg12_thumb.jpg

I looked inside one award-winning boutique amplifier advertising 100% true point-to-point wiring.  He is correct, and it’s a mess inside, with gobs of silicone holding everything in place and wires and components everywhere.  On the other hand, I see other builders that seem to be neat-freaks, with wires tied together in bundles, which is a recipe for noise.   Neatness counts, but neatness in correct wire dress, not looks. Substance over flash is one of my values.

It matters not whether an amp uses a PC board, tag board, turret board or true point-to-point wiring.  What matters is whether the components are sturdily mounted and selected for long life, laid out logically, and that signal, power, and heater pathways are routed for low noise and easy troubleshooting, and that you tell the truth about your amps.  Rest assured that all of these criteria are met in Texas Tone™ amps.  In many cases, the hiss is so low that you have to play your guitar to verify that the amp is turned on. It’s why power lights are so important!

Be aware

Don’t fall for marketing BS.  Don’t just buy an amplifier because your guitar hero plays one.  Do you play and sound exactly like your guitar hero?  If not, then using the same guitar and amp won’t make you sound like him.  I can play with a Twin and a 335, and I still don’t sound like BB King, nor if I use a Strat and a Marshall stack will I sound like Hendrix.

If you want a reliable amplifier, with high quality components, low-noise and easy troubleshooting wire routing, and above all great tone with no BS, chose Texas Tone™. Why? Because “Your TONE Matters”.

Your.Tone.Matters.07

I’m not going to lie to you or trick you into buying one of my amps with marketing lingo.

Thanks.

Please, Not Another Clone!

There are a handful of famous tube guitar amplifiers: Fender tweed Deluxe and Bassman; Marshall JTM45; Vox AC30; Fender Deluxe Reverb and Twin Reverb. They’re considered icons, the best of their breed. I don’t build clones of those amps – who needs another tweed Bassman? Modern solid-state amplifiers make use of modeling or digital technology more on that later and can be made for low-cost overseas and offer a wide variety of features, but none have attained the icon status of the great amps of the 1950s and ’60s.

“Hollow-state” technology is non-linear in its response, i.e. how a preamp tube responds- in frequency response, dynamic range, distortion, and amplification -varies depending upon the instantaneous input signal. When you realize that live electric guitar signals are nothing like the waveform-generated signals of a workbench, you also can visualize why creating a musical signal that can replicate this instantaneous harmonic distortion and non-linear response is quite unrealistic, and must depend upon approximations and false assumptions. A modeling amp can sound “sorta” like a vintage amp, at least until you play it side-by-side with a real vintage amp under real live musical situations.

The tube amplifiers that I build are designed to re-introduce these vintage circuit characteristics and combine them with modern quality components, build techniques, grounding techniques, and electrical principles to produce a guitar amplifier that creates a new sound that still seems “vintage” in quality. While I might base my designs around the tweed amps circuits, compared to them I utilize a preamp that operates under higher clean headroom conditions, which both provides a means of highlighting output distortion and makes my amps very pedal friendly, something that wasn’t even considered in the late 1950s or early ’60s. Changes such as voltage and filtering levels, and a low TSR index create a larger input dynamic ranges, reduced third order harmonics and wider input dynamic range at the phase splitter. The resulting sound is what you expect from a hand-built tube guitar amplifier- sweet, dynamic, touch sensitive tones that make your guitar sing.

While my amps are not clones, they’re certainly inspired by those great amps, but with a few good modern touches, all built by hand in Austin, Texas. Maybe that’s why one happy owner recently replaced his famous British amp with a Texas Tone 12.

TexasToneJSB

Better Living Through Better Tone.

-Texas Tone tube guitar amplifiers.

Guitarlington 2015 – The 4 Amigos Guitar Show in Arlington Texas

Last weekend, I displayed my amps at my first guitar show.  Besides the obvious marketing aspects, I met some great people there.  Although lots of vendors had amps, especially vintage amps, I was surprised that there were only a few other amp vendors there.  There were many choice pieces there, including some ’57-59 tweed Fender Bassman amps.

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

One of the amp vendors was Brown Amplification from McKinney, Texas.  They make heads and speaker cabinets, but not combos.  Since I only make combos, I sent them folks looking for heads and they sent folks to me looking for combos.

The first folks I met were the team from Wathen Audiophile. They make some really choice speakers and amps, but they were mainly displaying their select line of preamp and power amp tubes, all cryogenically treated with their proprietary treatment and selected to their own very strict specifications.  Each individually serialized tube includes its own laboratory test report for Heater vol, Plate vol, Screen vol, Grid vol, Transconductance, Grid Leakage, Plate Current, Plate Resistance and Gain. They were kind enough to supply me with a 12AX7-WCM that I used Sunday afternoon in my Texas 2:10 Special in the V1 preamp stage.  That amp got rave reviews (more on that later).

In the booth next to ours, between us and Warthen, was RBi Music, featuring FRET-King guitars by Trev Wilkinson . I use the Wilkinson compensating brass saddle Tele bridge on my guitar.  I really like those guitars, especially their JD Duncan Jerry Donahue model (my personal favorite) and a beautiful Elise semi-hollow model.  Rick Taylor and I got along well, and I let them test drive guitars on my amps, to our mutual benefit.

I had an interesting conversation about guitar amps and the music scene with Mark Daven of the Guitar Radio Show. Mark’s a great guy, and was nice enough to give me a shout out is his blog about Guitarlington 2015. Lauraine O’Toole from Avalon Multimedia dropped by for a visit and had some nice words for the Texas 2:10 Special.

I also got to meet Kevin Butts at Killer B Guitars.  I had to do this after Mark Daven brought a beautiful Killer B lefty T style guitar over to play through my amps. This guitar not only sounded great, but it was a work of art.  I had to tell the builder how impressed I was with his guitar.

The Texas 2:10 Special

I had three amps at the show – The original Texas Tone 12, the tweed Texas 2-Step, and the Texas 2:10 Special.

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

Daniel manning the Texas Tone booth

Although the tube tremolo on the Texas Tone 12 always warms my heart, and gets good response, on Saturday the Texas 2-Step got the most attention.  The ability to go from single-ended Champ to push-pull Deluxe circuits, and easily moving from clean to saturation, brought lots of positive response from listeners.

On Sunday, however, the Texas 2:10 Special was the star of the show.  Two incidents stand out.  A nice lady with a Tone Forge T-Shirt came by to get some brochures, and told me that the Texas 2:10 Special was the best amp in the show.  Late in the day, a very talented Nashville guitarist named Nathan came by, looking for the star amp.  He said he had heard about the amp (Texas 2:10 Special) and had come by to test it out.  He played and played on that amp, covering a variety of styles quite handily, all the while raving about the tone and responsiveness of the Texas 2:10 Special.  Rick from RBi let him play the JDD and Elise, but most of his playing was on my personal Telecaster.  He was most impressed with the amp, and I hope to get in touch with him again when he comes back to Austin.

All in all, it was a great time, and a great showing for my amps.  It’s always good to get feedback from musicians, and it’s extra special to get such positive response from people for whom music is their livelihood.

Bruce

Tuning Your Sound – Balancing Your Pickups

Think of your sound chain. By “sound chain” I mean the links all the way from you, your fingers on your guitar, the acoustic and electrical properties of your guitar – the resonance, pickups, volume/tone controls, bridge – and then on to your amplifier’s capabilities and settings, and then finally to the speaker. When you make any change to any link in this chain, you change the sound. There is a basic, intrinsic sound to your chain. This includes your normal playing style, volume, and tone, along with the standard “sound” of your amp/speaker at your normal settings. For ten years I played a Fender Nashville Telecaster.  Recently I’ve been playing a PRS Custom SE Semi-Hollow.  After a recent practice, the other guitarist, who plays a Fender Stratocaster, commented that he thought I would sound more different than I did, using the PRS versus the Fender.  In spite of change to a completely different type of guitar, I still sounded like me.

There are three places to tune your sound. You, your guitar, and your amp.

One of the often overlooked links in this chain is pickup height. Some experienced players know how great of a difference pickup height can make. They talk of pickup height in terms of finding a “sweet spot” where pickups sound their best and are most responsive and dynamic. Often, but not in any case always, this means lowering your guitars pickups. Guitar techs even apply a term, Stratitis, to the negative effects of having pickups too close to the strings on a standard Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Most electric guitars have two or more pickups, and even many of those with one pickup will have multiple switch or tone settings. Start with the bridge pickup, with the volume and tone wide open on the guitar. Set your amplifier’s tone to where it gets the flattest frequency response. (For a Fender blackface amp, this is usually with the Treble and Bass turned down and the Mids up). Fret the string at the last fret and set the pickup height according the the manufacturer’s spec; this will be the starting point. Bill Lawrence says to fit one nickel under the high E and two under the low E on a Fender Telecaster bridge pickup, then lower the pickup evenly to taste, and then adjust the height of the neck pickup to match the bridge. By the way, a U.S. nickel is about 5/64″ thick (.077″ or 1.95mm).

After setting the pickup height to factor spec, play across the strings in the middle of the neck. Play arpeggios and scales and melodies across the neck. Are the bass strings louder than the treble, or the treble strings too weak or too bright? Lower the pickup on the strongest side to even out the frequency response. Work in even increments, perhaps a quarter turn or half turn at a time. Test again. In this way, you can compensate for a bass-heavy amp or pickup by lowering the bass side of the pickup, or make up for an ice-pick treble sound by lowering the treble side of the pickup.  If lowering the bass or treble side was not enough, you can always lower the pole piece for that string. If lowering worked on the 5th or 2nd string but not on the 6th or 1st, then you can raise the pole piece for that one string.

Once you get the pickup height right for tonal balance, try lowering the entire pickup one whole screw turn and see how it affects the sound.  Do you like it better or not as much. If not as much, then raised it back., and then raise it a turn to see if you like that better.  One person I know says that his DiMarzio Air Classic pickups sound best closer to the strings.  Lace Sensors usually sound best close to the strings.  Fender single coil pickups often sound better farther away.  If lowering the pickup sounds better, then lower it another whole turn and test again.  What you want to find is the sweet spot, where the pickups are the most clear, the most balanced and the most responsive to your playing style.

Does your pickup have adjustable pole-pieces? Probably so if it’s not a Fender-style single coil pickup. Here is a way to adjust each string for best balance. Turn the volume down to where the amplified sound is only slightly louder than the acoustic sound of the guitar. It helps to have a long cable to get some separation from the amp. Again, play some arpeggios and scales and melodies across the neck, listening for strings that are lower in volume. When you hear it louder from the guitar than from the amp, you’ll know. Raise the pole piece underneath that string a quarter or half turn at a time, and then test again. Test again a stage volume, listening for a string that is too quiet in respect to the others or is too prominent.

I once had to choose between two amps. My standard gigging amp was louder, gainier, and was very bright – lots of treble. The other had a much fuller tone, more bass and midrange, and was not as loud. I chose the second for the sweet tone, but then had to deal with the fact that my sound was now too bassy and dominated by the low end. The solution? I ended up lowering the pickups on the bass side to get a more even response. This worked like a charm, and now the tone and response from string to string is very balanced. This allows me freedom of tone and volume settings on the guitar and amp, and greater flexibility in playing styles.  I can dig in on the bass strings without them completely overpowering my sound, and I can accentuate highs or lows as I see fit, just by varying my attack on the strings.

Why You Can’t Sound Like Your Guitar Hero

In the early days of modern popular music, the mid-to-late 1950s, the guitarist had his guitar, a cable, and his amp.  Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore had their Gibsons, Buddy Holly and Buck Owens had their Fenders, and the amplifier of choice was a Fender, usually a Twin or a Bassman.  It was easy to get the sound, if not the style, of the guitar playing on the popular recordings – the double-stop triplets of Chuck Berry, the fast rhythms of Buddy Holly, or the bright country picking of Buck Owens on his Telecaster.  Duane Eddy was the first one to popularizing effects with his rousing instrumental hits, a style he called twang, played on the bass strings of the guitar using tremolo and reverb.

As the 1960s rolled on into the 1970s, these fathers of electric lead guitar gave way to guitar heroes such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix among many others.  They were well known for playing live with stacks of amps and speakers on the stage.  Many young guitarists bought a Gibson SG or Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster to sound like their hero.  Finding a good amp was a more difficult task.  A Marshall Stack or Fender Dual Showman was too pricy for most, and way overkill for playing in a garage or small club in the mid 1960s.  Small amps were considered student or beginner models and cheap substitutes.  What many guitarists and listeners didn’t know at the time was that the gear these guys used on stage was not the same gear they used in the studio.  Live sound was primitive compared to what we know in the 21st Century.  Often, your amp had to fill the concert hall, and so a stack of amps was appropriate.  Studios at the time, recording on 4-track or 8-track tape, were designed for a standup bass and a few other instruments, and the microphones and consoles were also designed around certain ideas about volume levels.  While an amp stack might have sounded great on stage, in the studio it was the opposite, and could usually not be turned up past 2.  You certainly couldn’t play at concert levels in the studio.

The famous guitar solo on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven was played on a Fender Telecaster using a small Supro amp, as was much of Page’s studio work.  Likewise, most of Eric Clapton’s early famous work was played through a small Fender Champ.  These amps were considered practice, student, or home amps, and not “professional” amps intended for stage work.  In the studio, however, a small amp, cranked wide open and miked, gave a nice big sound.  So the guy who bought a Les Paul and a Marshall, wanting to sound like Jimmy Page, couldn’t duplicate the sound of a Telecaster played through a cranked Supro amp.  While Jimi Hendrix played through stacks of amps on stage – Marshall or Sunn or Dual Showman – in the studio it was a black-faced Fender combo.  Wind Cries Mary is the classic Fender blackface amp tone.

The iconic hit song Layla, featuring both Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on electric guitar, also featured small amps, but with a twist.  Using a 16-track tape recorder, six of those tracks were used for the guitars alone in the first section of the song, with five guitar tracks in the second section.  The famous intro and lead sections of Layla used track 3 for Clapton and Allman solo duplication, track 4 for Allman’s solo, track 5 for Clapton’s rhythm part, track 9, 11 & 12 for Clapton’s harmony parts.  Clapton played lead guitar on one track, and harmonized with his guitar lead on three other tracks.  Now you know why you can’t sound like Derek and The Dominos on Layla when you play at your local club.

In 1978, Mark Knopfler did what no one expected, he created a whole new sound, a new voice, for the electric guitar. At first glance it seems simple. Take a Strat, balance the switch in between notches, and play through a Fender amp, in this case a brown-faced Vibrolux Reverb.  Of course, he also used an Aphex Aural Exciter and an Orange Squeezer compressor, and he didn’t use picks, just his fingers, and he had a style on its own.  Even with a Strat and a Fender combo amp, the best you can hope for is to come close.

U2’s Edge made a career out of playing simple parts through a bank of effects, creating a wall of sound using a myriad of signal processing equipment.  If you’ve got the money and the time…

So let’s say you want to sound like one of your guitar heroes.

Perhaps you liked Jeff Beck’s tone in 1993’s Crazy Legs album.  For that record, he used three amps- a Fender Tremolux and a Fender Bassman in parallel, in a dry wood-paneled room, with two microphones on each amp, a Shure SM-57 dynamic mic and a Neumann U47 tube mic.  At the same time he also ran his guitar through a Fender Concert 2×12” amp, laid on its back pointing upwards in a stone room, with a mic on the ceiling.  The output from the Concert amp was also fed into the speakers of a Fender Twin, which was in an echo chamber. You probably can’t get that tone in your local club, or in your garage.

Maybe you liked Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone on In Step. He had thirty-something amps in the studio for that one, including a ’59 Bassman, a Dumble Steel String Singer, and a couple of 200W Marshall stacks. Try duplicating that in your music room.

Eric Clapton’s touring gear in the 2005 Cream reunion included two tweed Fender Twin reissue amps, and a Leslie cabinet, a far cry from the triple Marshall stacks of the 1960s.  But once Eric was an unannounced guest at a Little Feat show and the guitar tech was having a fit because the only amp they had for Clapton to play through was a crummy little practice amp. So, for the Little Feat encore, Clapton walks on stage, grabs a spare guitar from the rack, and the tech is bummed because that junky amp is the only amp available and he’s going to sound horrible. Eric Clapton plugged in, goes plink, plink twice, twiddles the knobs, and turns around and sounds like… well, he sounded exactly like Eric Clapton.  Billy Gibbons sounds like ZZ Top whether he’s playing on stage through a 100 Watt Marshall Stack or using a Lead 12 practice amp backstage.

The epitome of the guitar to cable to amp goes back to the early guitar heroes, and to the too long gone Telecaster players such as Buck Owens, Don Rich, and Roy Buchanan, who played their Fender Telecasters straight into their Fender amps, and to the guitar heroes of the ‘60s and 70s who played their guitars through small tube combo amps, and it continues today with blues, jazz, and Indie rock guitarists.

So get yourself a Fender Tele or Strat, or a Les Paul or SG or 335, and plug into a small tube combo amp – a Fender Champ, Deluxe, or Vibrolux, or a Texas Tone 12. Crank it up and you can sound just like… yourself.

After all, as Carlos Santana, a guitarist with a well known distinctive sound, said, “You’re not supposed to sound like anyone else; you’re supposed to sound like you.”

Your tone is in your fingers, in your heart, and in your soul, and played out through your guitar and amp.

Happy New Year.